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What Are They Worth? Part 3: Jose Reyes

Continuing with our series examining the top free agents in the 2011-2012 class, the next stop is electric shortstop Jose Reyes.

I think by this point, everybody knows who Jose Reyes is. He is a very good player; 2011 was his fourth season of posting a WAR of at least 5.3. He's an above-average hitter for his career (106 OPS+, 112 wRC+), just won his first batting title, and plays a pretty good shortstop, worth a couple of runs above average on defense. What he's known for, of course, are his legs: at one point, he was the most prolific base stealer in the NL. Add it all up and you get a perennial All-Star.

Of course, Reyes' issue of late has been his health. He has failed to take part in 134 or more games since 2008, and even though he had a great 2011 season, his health was, again, an issue.

As usual, we will start the analysis by deciding, as of right now, what kind of player Jose Reyes is. At his best from 2006-2008, Reyes was consistent with the bat, posting a .292/.355/.461 line at the plate, averaging 66/84 (a remarkable 79%) on the bases, and and an outstanding 8 fielding runs as a shortstop. Added up, he was about a 5.5 WAR player on a rather consistent basis. After three years of injuries, Reyes was back with a vengeance in 2011, posting a 5.8 WAR in just 126 games. While his WAR would likely have been over 6 had he stayed healthy, it is equally likely that he won't reproduce his 2011 season at the plate. He probably isn't a 143 OPS+ hitter, as his .353 babip (.313 career) can attest. Going forward, I feel very comfortable saying Reyes is still a 5-win player.

This is where things get interesting, however. Reyes has a unique skill set, based on speed, which includes an aggressive plate approach with the aim of putting the ball in play. As such, I do not think that he deserves to be treated as a normal player when deciding on his aging curve. I assembled a database consisting of 20 players who posted a season of 60 steals and a WAR of 4.0 or better, and here are the aging results, with 1.0 as peak value and the other numbers representing a portion of that:

25: 1.00
26: 0.99
27: 0.83
28: 0.76
29: 0.68
30: 0.69

This data should be taken with a grain of salt for two reasons: one, the sample was of 20 players, and two, it's a pretty exclusive group containing guys like Rickey Henderson, Ty Cobb, Tim Raines and Billy Hamilton. But I digress.

There has long been a suspicion among baseball circles that fast guys age faster, that instead of improving until age 26-28, then declining slowly after that peak, that fast guys peak early and decline early, as the speed and explosiveness of their youth abandons them. The above data seems to support that. Reyes himself would have experienced a similar effect in 2011 had he not hit so well --

Had he hit to his 2006-2008 averages (12 batting runs), and played a full season (155 games), his value would have dropped significantly. He would have recorded five baserunning runs instead of eight, and -5 fielding runs instead of the seven of his prime. Altogether he would have been 1.7 wins worse than he was in his prime, a huge dip that shows his skill set, his meal ticket: his legs, are aging.

Now, while those things did decline, his bat improved immensely. As stated earlier, he's probably not a 145 OPS+ hitter, but he was above-average before, and he just had a huge year. Altogether, his offense is probably close to what he's done altogether since 2006: 115 OPS+, 122 wOBA, or about 12 batting runs over a full season.

On the basepaths, he clearly isn't the 78-steal guy from a few years ago, but he can still run. Let's give him five baserunning runs. His defense is more difficult, because he had a horrific year, where at -5, rtot treated him most kindly. By rpm and rdrs, he was over ten runs below average. It's been a while since he was an outstanding defensive shortstop, so for the sake of this exercise, let's assume that Reyes is a league-average shortstop. Add it all together and what do you get? With things like positional adjustment and reaching on errors, a *full* season of Jose Reyes is a 44-run player, or a 4.9-win player.

This is where it gets messy. Jose Reyes of late has not exactly been the picture of health. He's battled calf problems as far back as 2004, and missed parts of both 2009 and 2011 with strains or tears in both hamstrings, in addition to oblique issues in 2010. I can't predict the health of Reyes' calves any more than I can predict the health of his foot, his rotator cuff, his mental health or the health of his family, so what I suggest for projecting his health is an average for what he has done for his career since 2006, minus 2009 entirely -- major injuries are impossible to account for. What we are left with is 149 games, making that 4.9 WAR more like 4.7.

So Reyes is a 4.7 WAR player who is going to age horribly, ok, but what can he be expected to produce in terms of value (in 2012 dollars, because that will be the market in which he gets paid)? According to what we have looked at so far, he can be expected to produce WARs of 4.3 in the next two years, then, using some data from the Hardball Times (the pool I used earlier got dangerously thin past age 30), we can project his age 31 through 34 seasons to produce WARs of 4.2, 4.0, 3.8, and 3.6. I have a feeling he will decline more sharply than this, especially in light of the above data, but it is impossible to predict that sharp of a decline in any player. Besides, Some sources believe the opposite of what I have claimed: that fast players age better than others (source 1, source 2).

So, we can tell how much Reyes is going to be worth per season in terms of value, now we just need to know how long his deal is going to be. Baseball fans at FanGraphs predicted that Reyes would receive 5.8 years (so, six), and provided the fact that Carl Crawford got seven last offseason, that is likely not a ridiculous belief. With the above values, in the next six years, Reyes will provide 24.2 wins. At $5 MM per win, he should provide a ton of value, $121 MM.

Any fan in their right mind is thinking at this point, '$121 MM over 6 years? He's not going to get that.' And they are right, he's not. Thanks to Reyes' injury issues, to Crawford's flop in 2011, and to a lack of need for a shortstop on the big market teams, Reyes probably isn't going to get $20 MM, but he will get close. Those same FanGraphs fans predicted that Reyes would receive $17.4 MM per an, and $100 MM/6 is too perfect of a number ($16.6 MM AAV) not to look at. My best prediction is that Reyes will take $102 MM over six years, a deal which would save the investing team about $20 MM, assuming he ages at a normal pace and stays relatively healthy. The investing team could save even more money, of course, if Reyes maintains the stroke he had in 2011 (he shouldn't) or reclaims some of the vigour with which he played the field five years ago (as unlikely).

Projected contract length: Six years
Projected value over that time: $121 million
Projected actual salary: $102 million

And with that, the market for position players dies off quickly. The next two free agents will be pitchers, but that doesn't mean their cases will be any less interesting.




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